The next time someone says, “Make America great again!” I suggest you answer, “Oh, you mean like in 1955 when two men with guns pulled a 14-year old boy out of bed at 2:30 in the morning, took him away and brutally tortured and murdered him beyond recognition because he whistled at a woman? And then were taken to trial and in spite of an eyewitness account and overwhelming evidence beyond any reasonable— or unreasonable— doubt, were acquitted by a jury who took exactly one hour and seven minutes to deliver their “not guilty” verdict? A verdict they had decided almost immediately, but took their time drinking soda pop to make it seem more official? Is that the great America you want to come back again?
If you only have time in your life to get to know one story that illuminates everything that is shameful, brutal, barbaric and wrong in American race relations, this could be it—the story of Emmett Till. Killing an innocent child, mutilating him beyond recognition, threatening to kill the eyewitnesses and the murderers getting off scot free with the full consent of the rigged legal system and dominant culture should be enough to convince anyone with a beating heart that something is terribly wrong, a Civil War that lasted 100 years past the last battle and continues in other forms today.
On Day 3 of our Social Justice field trip, we lived vicariously through Emmett’s horrific story. I won’t say tragic, because that implies some mythological forces at work beyond human control. This was the logical extension of consciously applied institutions that began from economic greed and continued through socially approved lies of white supremacy. At the end of video footage and spoken testimony, our trip leader asked us how it would be to meet the cousin who was sharing a room with Emmett when the men came and snatched him away. And then announced, “Here he is. Mr. Simeon Wright!”
It was the second body-shaking-with-sobs moment in the trip, as this beautiful and elegant man entered and proceeded to tell us the story from his personal experience and answer questions. Once again, the quality of understanding, forgiveness and ability to live on while never shaking the grief was worthy of the highest promise of human possibility.
Following his talk, the kids went out to play Frisbee and I took a group to the Waffle House. Having opened themselves to emotion of this depth, they needed some kid-like activities like these. And so did I.
Returning from Waffle House, I went to sit in the lobby to watch a bit of the basketball game and there was Mr. Wright sitting on the couch. I sat down next to him and we started talking basketball. I did ask him some more questions about the story and shared my own perspective on the evolution of racist culture, but mostly we talked about the trip he took out west, schools in Chicago, how he and his wife met. An affirmation of the recurring theme of the trip— ordinary people forced by circumstance to be courageous beyond imagination. But at the end—and in the middle, and at the beginning—they're just folks like anyone else happy to watch the ball game and talk about the price of eggs or the wonder of Yosemite.
I have a long list of stories that I feel would help heal the gaping wound of racism if only everyone heard them and discussed them and knew the historical context surrounding them, stories that could and should be a mandatory part of every school curriculum in every school in this country. Stories that would not just be told and passed over, but deeply examined and deeply felt and deeply considered. I’d throw out the entire history of ancient Mesopotamia or the list of wars or the succession of kings or presidents for one story like this. Or rather, that story would radiate out to those other historical forces in a way that puts it all in a moral context and educate the character as well as the mind and heart.
And I suggest beginning with the story of Emmett Till. As told by Simeon Wright in his book Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till.
And that, my friends, would make America great.